This is the 2.5-star review I wrote of the tedious A Farewell to Arms on my old Angelfire site in early 2004. I don’t make any apologies for hating Ernest Hemingway and finding his prose beyond Spartan, boring, and flat. I’ve enjoyed his short stories, but that Spartan prose doesn’t work so well when stretched out over 200 pages. I have my opinion just as other people have their opinions.
“Thank our Gracious Lord That’s Over,” as it says towards the end of the liner notes to Quad. This book didn’t take too long to read because of the simple writing style, but damn was a lot of it boring and sleep-inducing. Even after it got more interesting in Chapter 30 (out of 41 chapters total), I still felt absolutely nothing for the characters. These characters have about as much depth as a bunch of paper dolls, and the story lacked motivation and plausibility.
But unlike other books which also lacked seeming motivation, like Doctor Zhivágo, Ánna Karénina, and Tender Is the Night, this book didn’t have the saving grace of being at all interesting or having likeable characters you cared about. The so-called love stories in those other three books look more plausible in comparison! And they were at least well-written, with good storylines and characters you came to care about, whether you liked them or hated them.
I didn’t feel anything for these characters at any point because they had zero depth or emotions, not even when Henry/Tenente got wounded while eating cheese with his buddies, nor at the end, which is supposed to be sad. At best I felt bad for the baby for about five seconds.
The people who called this book “magnificent” and “tender” were probably just some dead white guys who appreciated “Papa” Hemingway’s chauvinistic views towards women and his minimalistic Spartan writing style. Come on, I wrote more advanced stories and characters in the fourth grade! His vocabulary isn’t more advanced than that of the average third grader, but even a third grader could write a more interesting inspired story.
There’s no life in his boring short sentences, and the characters rarely say more than five to ten words at a time to one another. He’ll write something like “It was raining. It was dark. I was hungry. The train began to move. I drank some more vermouth.” (These people drink like fish, even the pregnant Catherine, though I’ve heard that the characters in the supposedly equally boring The Sun Also Rises drink even more!)
A 13-year-old couple could express their feelings a lot better and in more complex terms than Henry and Catherine! These people are supposed to be in love? Catherine talks like a two-year-old, usually saying something like “Ooh, ooh, I love you, do you love me? Why don’t we get married?” It’s very annoying, and while I still disdain this unrealistic doll, I’m sure Barbie would have more depth to her if she came to life! (Though she would also die if she came to life because of her unhealthy body type.)
I just rolled my eyes when these two announced they were in love on like the first date, and when Catherine was supposed to be going with Henry’s friend Rinaldi. Henry even admits to himself that he didn’t love her at the time yet said he still loved her anyway. Not another AK or DZ! Though at least those other two love stories took longer to develop and get consummated; the principal characters weren’t declaring they loved one another already after meeting for five minutes. Come on, where’s the sexual tension to make it believable?
This might just be my older edition, but there’s the annoying old-fashioned convention of writing things like “some one,” “break through,” “any one,” “to-night,” and “to-morrow.” Come on, nobody under the age of a hundred writes like that anymore! There were also long dashes where curse words were supposed to be (yet they had no problem writing the word “nigger” out when it appeared one time). Intellectual dishonesty; were people really afraid to see swear words written out, or was it due to the Comstock Act?
There were some nice descriptions, though, but this is supposed to be a novel, not a travel book. The descriptions of the geographical surroundings and the way people lived in the Teens were good parts of the book; it wasn’t all like pulling teeth. I also liked the fastest-moving part of the book, in Chapter 30, when Henry runs away from being shot during a major retreat, leaps into a river, and escapes by holding onto a piece of driftwood, then sneaks onto a train leaving the area and tries to disguise his appearance so people won’t think he’s a deserting soldier based on the uniform he’s wearing. But after that it got dull again. Not as dull as the first 200 pages, but still not as exciting and quick either as the pages where he’s escaping. And the book does have historical significance, so I’m not going to totally write it off as uninspired dreck.
I’m in no mood to choke down another Hemingway book anytime soon. His minimalistic prose works great in a short story like “Soldier’s Home” or “Hills Like White Elephants,” but is exceedingly tedious and painful in a long work of literature. If all his other books are said to be just as boring and lacking in development, I really don’t want to read another one so soon.
The saddest thing about this supposedly classic book isn’t the ending, but the fact that I never felt anything for any of the characters, which is what a good writer is supposed to accomplish effortlessly. And the fact that the pace doesn’t pick up till after page 200 also doesn’t do much for this dated book. Maybe it’s true that Hemingway’s books are increasingly being viewed as bad period pieces, not classic literature.